Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Future Of Translation

The art – and, by nature, industry - of translation has existed for almost as long as the written word itself: first the Sumerians invented the transcribed word, then other civilizations caught on and developed their own. Somewhere along the way, someone came across the writings of some group of people apart from their own and decided “Hey, I wish I could read this… IN MY OWN LANGUAGE!”

That person subsequently sought out someone who could read both sets of languages, offered them a few seashells, half a pig, and a shiny piece of metal to write out this new foreign language in his native tongue, and thus was born the translation industry.* As far as I know, the industry had stayed pretty much exactly the same for a few thousand years until the advent of the printed word, which made things somewhat easier for translators. After much rejoicing, the scene calmed back down and business went on as usual for a few more centuries.

   Then, out of the blue, came the translator's new best friend: the Internet. Once the translation world realized what the arrival of this Internet-thing made possible, pants were thoroughly wet across the board. With this new translation tool, not only could you look up words and phrases at lightning speed, but sending and receiving work, seeking assistance, and checking reference materials also became possible at the click of a button, as opposed to before, when you had to make a trip to the post office or library, sometimes just to look up a single word. It could have been the greatest thing to happen to professional translators since sliced rocket surgery.

   But alas, along with the incredible convenience and efficiency of the Internet came a number of new problems as well. People who had spent years studying their working language and honing their craft to perfection suddenly started losing work to bored housewives, students, and part-time workers who not only happened to be bilingual – with extremely varying degrees of linguistic proficiency, of course – but, not being fully qualified professionals, were also willing to work for much less money. (Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, with the economy being as shaky as it has been the past few years many companies seem to have no qualms whatsoever with paying bottom dollar for basically bottom-level quality, rather than pay a bit more for the work of a proper “craftsman”.)

   A recent study showed that - apart from the deceased - approximately 914 million people in the world can speak English. Furthermore, apart from the Amish, approximately 99.9% of the world’s population is connected to the Internet.** This means that if your working languages as a translator are, say, Swahili-Croatian or Norwegian-Zuul, then you're probably going to be OK as far as competition goes. But if you are a professional translator of virtually any language into English, then the road ahead is going to be pretty rough and rocky. And narrow. And steep. And littered with broken glass. And landmines.*** And you're barefoot.

   The future of translation is not set in stone. Obviously, since technically it hasn't happened yet, no one can say one way or another exactly what will happen to the industry. But all signs are pointing to “OH CRAP…!” The market is becoming saturated with low-pay, low-quality amateur translators. Their presence affects the average base price of translation work, and for each subpar job an amateur stumbles through and screws up, the image of translators in general suffers in the eyes of that particular client. Tools such as Trados SDL and other types of translation memory (including the worst offender of them all – Babelfish) are being released right and left, causing many to wrongfully assume that the actual human translator is no longer necessary. As I said, prospects are not bright.

   With the future of the industry looking as dark as it is, I believe that in order to stay afloat and succeed, professional translators (ones who actually care about the job, take pride in their work, and strive to make a career of it, anyway) need to find new ways to stay ahead of the careless wannabes and the flimsy technology, and just as importantly to secure an adequate flow of work.
But to close on a slightly more optimistic note: The future may be dark, but the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. We just have to have the wisdom, the determination, and the perseverance to keep following the light. ****

* (Alright, I am some kind of exaggerating here.)
** (This is a blatant lie which I invented to help make a point).
***(I do not condone the use of illegal explosives or firearms unless absolutely necessary.)
****(Please feel free to have some wine to go with this cheese.)

How do you see the future? Any comments on my gibble gabble are welcome!